Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Marathon Southwest Colorado Trip - Part 3

Part 3
My truck was already packed up, so I loaded up my camera and gear, and got on the road.

I knew that time was going to be the issue for what I wanted to do to finish out my day and my marathon 2 day trip, but I forged on.

I headed west on Highway 160 following the same route that I had taken in the morning. This time instead of stopping in Monte Vista, I continued on and I soon arrived at Del Norte. This was now officially uncharted territory for me. This was a part of the state that I had never been in. The skies had been overcast all day with some rain in the morning, but in the distance underneath the clouds were rain shafts partially obscuring the mountains behind.

Along either side of the highway were sections of land where hay had been recently cut and the large round bales were scattered throughout the golden colored fields. There were also areas where active irrigation was taking place to water the future harvests of local ranchers and farmers. The mountains were beginning to close in on the valley in as I continued west.

South Fork was the next town that I came upon. As I approached the eastern side of town, I immediately noticed a large historic wooden water tower that had once been used by the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad. The tower was obviously well taken care of, and appeared to have a stable structure and fairly fresh paint job. I had to stop and grab a few shots of it. Just across the road were some old passenger rail cars from the Sante Fe Railroad and the Seaboard Coast Line as well as some other old rail cars. This area too has quite a bit of railroad history. The Denver & Rio Grande Western bought Southern Pacific Railroad in 1988 and the new company continued to use the better known name of Southern Pacific. In 1996, Union Pacific Railroad took over that railroad following years of financial trouble. Following the UP takeover, this section of rail from South Fork to Creede was taken out of service and was subsequently sold to the Denver & Rio Grande Historical Foundation. The rails here have been silent ever since.

I made the turn in South Fork onto Highway 149 and headed northwest. I could see the tracks paralleling the highway as I made my way towards Creede. I had traveled just a few miles before I seen a beautiful steel truss bridge where the old railroad had crossed the Rio Grande River. I made the time to stop and grab a few shots. I had passed the bridge and drove about a quarter of a mile before I pulled over. The rain had again made an appearance and the drops were lightly falling. I had to walk down an embankment and through 100 feet or so of tall wet grass to get to a decent vantage point. I set up my tripod and camera and snapped off a few shots. From my location I was not able to get a shot of the full bridge, but I loved the perspective and view from where I was at. I was on the road again after I broke down my camera gear and waded back through the tall wet grass. I was pretty well soaked from the knees down. The lengths that a photographer will go to…

The San Luis Valley, now a distant memory, gave way to beautiful mountain ranges of the San Juan Mountains. It was now obvious that the rain and cloudy skies were going to be accompanying me for the duration of the day. Every bend in the road provided for a new and beautiful landscape. I always hate being on a timeline, especially when it comes to visiting an area for the first time while having so many photographic opportunities. I tried to take advantage of both.

I had encountered quite a bit of traffic ever since I left Alamosa. Being a Friday afternoon people were getting off work and getting their weekends started. I continued on up the twisty Highway 149 also known as the Silver Thread Scenic Byway into Mineral County and further into the Wilderness and National Forest areas of the San Juan Moutains. 96 percent of the lands in Mineral and Hinsdale Counties are federally owned. The beauty of the area was enhanced due to the remoteness and the sparse population. The mountains continued to close in as Creede came into view. Creede sits at the very end of the canyon and is completely surrounded by mountains, one way in and one way out. Given time, I would have actually gone into town, but daylight was running short. As I progressed, I made the transition from Mineral to Hinsdale County.

This route from South Fork to Lake City was once the route of the Barlow & Sanderson Stage Line. The stage line was established in the mid 1800’s when this area was first settled. I could have imagined myself making that trip by horseback or stage over the rough and rocky trails. The combination of the wilderness and the newfound discoveries would have been very exciting. Although the winters could be very brutal as you will soon see.

In 1858, San Juan City was established west of Creede and was the gateway to Stony Pass which provided the best access to Howardsville and Silverton for all of the gold miners of the day. The pass was not easily traveled and was often traveled by mule trains carrying people and goods. Wagons choosing to make the voyage had to be disassembled and lowered down steep areas of the pass. San Juan City was a hub for those people and goods coming into the area and for those traveling Stony Pass to Silverton until 1882 when the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad completed the line from Durango to Silverton. The post office that was established here in 1874 gave way for the city to become the first County seat of Hinsdale County. The only part of San Juan City remaining today is the courthouse, and it is now part of the privately owned San Juan Ranch. The site of San Juan City and access to Stony Pass lie west of 149 just inside Hinsdale County.

The rain had once again passed over the area as I stopped to get behind the camera and take in the view once again. The area west of 149 is dominated by the largest designated wilderness in Colorado, Weminuche. It is named after the Weminuche tribe of Ute Indians that inhabited the southern areas of Colorado and northern New Mexico. The Weminuche Wilderness and Rio Grande National Forest are also home to the headwaters of the Rio Grande River, the third longest river in the United States. You can also see the continental divide from here.

It was 4:30 in the afternoon as I went over Spring Creek Pass, and out of the corner of my eye I caught a National Forest sign pointing out North Clear Creek Falls to passersby’s. I anxiously followed the signs to the parking area. I quickly and excitedly grabbed my camera and tripod and walked to the 30 yards to the observation platform. The clouds had turned off the spigot for the time being, and the lighting was perfect for what I was about to capture. I could hear the rushing water as I approached the edge of the observation deck. From the parking area, one could not tell that a waterfall would even be present here. I was pleasantly surprised to see the picturesque waterfall descending into the crevice below. I just had to take a couple of minutes to take it all in. It was absolutely beautiful!!

I set up my camera and tripod and got started. As I was there taking care of business, there were 4 groups of people that had parked in the parking lot, walked down to the falls, spent a few seconds looking and left. All I could think was “what are you doing”? Are you in that big of a hurry that you cannot even take a few minutes to admire the beauty of Mother Nature? I was running on borrowed time, and I could even take a few minutes to stop, take a few breaths and give thanks for this beautiful sight. Not to mention getting a few shots. 

The water cascaded down the multi layered rock into an entirely different eco system below with the sheer rock faces of the canyon to frame it all in. I was able to catch the water symphony in my images. This was just an awesome surprise that I stumbled upon.

The sun had made a short appearance, but it was short lived as the clouds once again filled in the sky. It was time for me to move on.

I continued on my trek northwest on Highway 149 enjoying the incredible terrain as I went over Slumgullion Pass. I descended the 9% grade on the north side of the pass, which is the steepest continuously paved road in Colorado, on my way to my last planned stop of the trip.

I had taken a Colorado History class in College, so I of course knew the history behind Alferd Packer. But it did not come to mind until I seen the sign denoting the site just south of Lake City. As I alluded to earlier, winters in this part of the state can be very dangerous. In February 1874, Packer and 5 others headed east into the San Juan Mountains. In April only one emerged. Alferd Packer was subsequently charged and found guilty of cannibalism.

As I pulled into Lake City, Colorado, I noticed all of the Jeep and ATV rental companies lined up along the highway. I knew the area was a big off-roading area, but I was surprised to see just how much of one it was.

With the clouds and rain still present, I drove through the historic town. It was like stepping back into the late 1800’s. The downtown area had all of the old buildings with the large storefronts indicative of the old west.

I turned onto Hinsdale County Road 20 and began my trek up the canyon. The dirt road was wet and muddy from the rain that had been present all day. The sheer canyon walls were close in to the road and Henson Creek before widening as I drove up. It wasn’t long before I started to see the remnants of gold and silver mining of years past. I had begun to pass tunnels that had once been used and now have been gated off to prevent access. Mining equipment and associated out buildings also began to appear as I slowly made my way up the canyon. I would say that some of these buildings had been used until sometime until the mid twentieth century. As the road gained in elevation it rose above the canyon walls below where Henson Creek was flowing. There was a large mining and processing operation located here. The creek was at one time dammed in order to support the mine operations and possibly as a water supply for the area. The lower center of the dam had been destroyed, but the dam was still mostly intact. It was here that I noticed the clear water had an ice blue color to it. I took time to stop here and grab some shots of the out buildings and the dam.

I continued to make my way up the canyon, and the canyon walls had again begun to close in and the dirt road narrowed. The rain was falling steadily now and the canyon was quite beautiful. Equipped with my rain gear, I stopped along the creek and snapped the shutter button to obtain some shots of the cold ice blue water against the moss covered rock face of the canyon. I could not believe how fast the time was passing. It was already 5:45, but the canyon was calling me to go farther. So I ventured on.

Capitol City, founded in 1877 lies further up County Road 20 on the way to Engineer Pass. At one time the founder of Capitol City thought that it would replace Denver as the Capitol of Colorado. That obviously never came to be. There is just a couple of buildings left standing at the old site. They have obviously been restored to some extent, but still provide for some nice photos.

I was feeling adventurous this late afternoon so I forged on. As I climbed closer to the beginning of Engineer Pass, I spotted a sign that pointed out the scenic overlook for Whitmore Falls. I had really wanted to check the falls out, but the rain was still falling and in order to get to the overlook you had to climb down some slick wooden stairs and probably some fairly steep slopes. I chose not to make the attempt. I did not feel like taking a trip that I was not planning on. I will have to make a point to check the falls out on another trip.

My travels continued on until I reached the beginning of Engineer Pass. As much as I wanted to continue on, I decided that I had better start making my way home.

This final part of my trip was the part that I had, in a way anticipated the most, and thought through the least. I knew from the time that I left Alamosa earlier in the day that I was going to be venturing into territories that I had not been before. Although my time was limited, I was able to get a taste of Colorado that wetted my curiosity, adventurous spirit and not to mention, my camera. I had seen glorious landscapes, water features, and a lot of Colorado railroad and mining history.

This will not be the last time that I will travel to this part of the state. I know that my next time here will require multiple days, and I already have plenty to add to the itinerary for when that time comes.

Thanks for coming along!

Until my next adventure….

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Marathon Southwest Colorado Trip - Part 2

Part 2

ring, ring, ring…

Not sure what it was at first, I slowly began to recognize the distinct sound, and still in a half conscious state, I woke up to answer the telephone on the nightstand. It was the front desk with my requested wake-up call. It was 6:00AM…

The previous day had been long and my body needed the 7 hours of sleep that I was able to pull off. Rain was falling from the dreary and overcast skies and it looked as if it was going to be around for a while. I had another train ride planned and the Potato Express running between Alamosa and Monte Vista was going to be my poison for the day.

I had arrived at the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad ticketing office to the same smiling faces from the kind people that I had experienced the day before. I got my ticket and headed out to the platform. I had arrived to find jacketed and umbrella covered passengers boarding the San Luis Express train that I had taken the day before. I was thankful that I was able to be on the train the day before and to have had the beautiful weather that we did. Although it would still be a wonderful trip, the cool, dreary, and wet weather would definitely put a damper on the passengers wanting to enjoy the open air car and the photographers wanting to capture their experiences. I would be experiencing mostly the same conditions, but my trip today would be shorter and would be exclusively in the valley.

The Potato Express train as I noted above travels round trip between Alamosa and Monte Vista, Colorado. The Rio Grande Scenic Railroad and its sister railroad, San Luis & Rio Grande Railroad (SLRG) also provides a great deal of freight service, and that business is a significant contributor to the railroads bottom line. The make-up of this train is primarily freight based but it also provides limited passenger service. The ride takes just 40 minutes and covers roughly 17 miles. Due to the routes short distance, this train makes 2 round trip journeys each day, carrying passengers and freight.

The platform and immediate yard was only occupied by No. 18 and the San Luis Express train. My train was scheduled to depart at 9:30 and it was already 9. With old No. 18 shrouded in a plume of steam, it slowly departed the platform to begin its daily journey to La Veta.

There was still no sign of the train that I and a few others were waiting for. The families also there waiting for the train were taking shelter under the eaves of the original train station, which is now home to the Alamosa Welcome Center. The Rio Grande offices are next door and across the street on State Ave.

Several minutes later I saw the headlights from our General Electric diesel electric locomotive as it was approaching from the east. As the train rolled up and stopped at the platform it already had several hopper cars hooked up behind the single passenger car that stood directly behind the locomotive. As everyone was waiting to board a conductor emerged from the rear of the train and the engineer left the cab of the engine to greet everyone and invite the 20 or so of us making the trip aboard.

I was excited about making this trip today. The short trip in of itself was not the most exciting trip, but there were two things that were going to work well for me. One was the fact that it was a short trip and that I would be back to Alamosa before noon. Secondly, and this is what I was most excited about, I had the opportunity to ride in the cab of this working train. I introduced myself to Jason the Engineer/ Conductor and to Jason the Engineer. Yes, both of the guys were named Jason. That made it easier to for me to remember their names.

I had decided that I would ride with the rest of the passengers on the way to Monte Vista and would ride back with Jason (Engineer) in the cab on the return trip to Alamosa. I had the option of being in the cab for the entire trip, but I wanted to be able to visit with the other passengers as well as Jason the conductor, and take in the sights from the passenger car.

As I boarded the train and entered the passenger car, I noticed that the car was quite different from the ones on the San Luis Express train that I had taken the day before. This car was also an older car, but it was designed for short commuter lanes, as it has just one wood bench that stretched the length of the car. Once everyone was aboard, Jason (the conductor) gave everyone the “flight attendant” type safety briefing to all of us that had boarded in case there was an accident or other incident. He had said that a couple of weeks earlier a woman in a car had ignored the trains horn and continued across one of the railroad crossings on the route. Obviously the train was unable to stop in that short distance and the rear of the woman’s car was hit and was thrown off the track and spun around. Luckily no one was injured. As much as people have heard about the need to heed railroad crossings, and the consequences of when that does not occur, it is amazing that people still decide to try and beat the train. Oh my god!!

You could tell that Jason (the conductor) really loves his job. He had been working for the railroad for just over 4 months and is a native of Alamosa. When he had an opportunity to go to work for the railroad, and he immediately gave notice to his other employer. These smaller railroads are an excellent opportunity for younger folks to get involved with the railroad, as well as for those that have worked for the much larger class one railroads that are looking for a slower pace and a more stable schedule. The San Luis & Rio Grande Railroad cross-train their employees so they can jump into multiple roles such as Engineer, Conductor, Switchman, etc. as the need arises. As Jason was conversing with all of us, we also found out that he is a volunteer fireman for the Alamosa Fire Department. That was interesting for me, because I also do some work for a Fire Department and Fire Organization here in the Denver Metro area. I would also later find out that Jason (the engineer) is also a member of the Alamosa Fire Department.

The diesel engine slowly began to rev and the train began to move from the platform, and we were on our way to Monte Vista. The rain had stopped and the cloud deck was starting to rise and there were even a few breaks with blue sky behind.

The train had to make a stop at a siding to drop off some of the hopper cars that we had been pulling. Jason left us in the passenger car to disconnect the hoppers and make the necessary switches.

Shortly we were again under way, and I managed to grab a few shots from the vestibule directly behind the locomotive. The train’s horn sounded multiple times as we approached and passed crossings on our way to Monte Vista. As we pulled up to our destination in downtown Monte Vista, Jason told us that we would have about 45 minutes to explore Monte Vista and he made several suggestions on getting a quick bite to eat. The train slowly came to a stop next to a park on the eastern edge of the downtown area.

As I was noticing a distinct looking wagon from the windows of our car, Jason let us know about an Amish woman who had homemade bakery items for sale in the park. I immediately knew where I was going to stop. Both Jason’s took their scheduled time to take their lunch break and left the rest of us to venture out and do some exploring before we had to be back.

The wagon that was sitting between the train and the park was definitely of Amish origins. I did not know that we had an Amish community here in Colorado, so I was fascinated by the prospect of being able to go and meet the lady wearing the distinctive style of clothing and white bonnet behind the tables with her baked goods. As I approached the park I was grabbing shots of this wagon and the smaller wagon behind that was used to carry all of tables and goods that were being sold. The set of wagons was not something that one would expect to be seeing here in Colorado. A covered wagon would have been more of a historically accurate scene for the area. The horse that would have been pulling the 2 wagons was not anywhere to be seen. As I drew closer to the Amish woman I noticed that a small girl that was with her was with also dressed in the same style of attire. The tables were covered with jars of homemade jams and jellies, pies, breads, and other delectable treats.

They had seen me carrying my camera with its large white lens and camera bag as I was taking pictures of their wagons. The little girl’s attention was focused on my camera and its lens. I introduced myself and was welcomed by Katie and her daughter Carol. During our conversation, I discovered that their family is a part of a much larger Amish community just outside of town. 30 families live the Amish lifestyle just 12 miles from Monte Vista. Katie’s family moved here from a Wisconsin Amish community several years ago. Katie’s husband works as a crane operator in the valley, and they live the traditional simple lifestyle that the Amish people are known for. They have no electronics and no electricity or many of the modern conveniences that most of us take for granted. I was surprised however that they do make use of solar technology. When I asked Katie where their horse was, she told me that they tie him up behind some railroad cars used for storage on a secondary track right behind the main line by the park. Every Friday Katie and Carol make the hour and a half and 12 mile trip to Monte Vista to sell their homemade goods to the local residents as well as the passengers from the train. As I was sitting there, there were multiple people and regular’s who came by to purchase Katie’s tasty treats. I am not normally one to indulge in sweets or desserts, but since they were being so kind, I felt the necessity to purchase a few of their goods. As I scanned over the table, my eyes were focused on some of their homemade fudge, and I knew that my family would enjoy the fact that I brought some of it home.

I asked if it would be alright if I were to snap a few photos of them. Katie was very kind and said sure, as long as she did not have to pose for any of the shots. We both chuckled and I assured her that there would be no need for that, and I just wanted a few natural shots as she went about her business. Carol, being very shy was not too sure about the camera, although she was very curious and sweet and I was able to snap a few shots that were real keepers. I really enjoyed my time visiting with Katie and Carol and was very appreciative of them allowing me to capture their, as Katie put it, plain and simple ways.

As time was quickly passing, I took a quick jaunt through the downtown area and was able to get a few photographs of this small rural town.

I walked down Adams Street, taking some of shots of a couple of dogs that were patiently waiting for their master in the bed of a pickup parked in front of the store fronts. They posed very nicely for me and my camera.
The 45 minutes had passed quickly and it was time to head back to Alamosa. Jason and

Jason were walking back to the train as I and a few other passengers were waiting alongside the train. The remaining passengers had already boarded the passenger car.
Jason, the Engineer, invited me to board the maroon colored 1986 General Electric B39-8E Diesel Electric Locomotive numbered 8527. This locomotive was originally built for LMX Leasing and was subsequently purchased by RLCX in 2001. The San Luis & Rio Grande (SLRG) leased this locomotive in 2006 and it was re-painted to the SLRG colors in 2008. These powerful locomotives were once widely used by Burlington Northern (BN) and Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF).

Okay, I know that this is a guy thing, but I was really excited about this part of my trip. Big engines, a lot of power, and a railroad, sounds like a good thing to me.

As we got ready to depart Monte Vista, Jason (the Conductor) and Jason (the Engineer), worked like a finely choreographed dance troop. Jason, in the cab, communicated with Jason at the rear of the train via radio to make sure that the necessary crossing gates had dropped and that the traffic had stopped for the crossing. Our Engineer Jason started to sound the horn, and began to back the train out of the yard in Monte Vista, all the time communicating with the Conductor to make sure that all was clear as the train crossed the highway.

Our crew had to get the train turned around so we could head back to Alamosa. As the train cleared Highway 160, we continued to back up for approximately ¼ of a mile to what railroaders refer to as a “wye”. A wye is a triangular section of railroad with switches at each intersection of the triangle allowing the train to make a 3-point turn. As we approached the wye, we once again had to cross Highway 160 twice as the crew navigated the wye, so we could head eastbound toward Alamosa.

While Jason carefully watched his surroundings, controlling the diesel electric locomotive, and sounding the horn, he communicated with Jason at the rear of the train as he watched for traffic and any obstacles and made the necessary switches in the wye.

As the last gates of the railroad crossing raised and the lights and bells went dark and silent, we were on our way. This was the first time that I had been in the cab of a diesel electric locomotive, let alone one running on a working railroad. This was a real thrill. You could feel and hear the power of the diesel engine and generator behind you as it drove the electric traction motors under your feet. This is not a class one railroad, so our speed was limited but the unique experience still made my whole trip.

I found out that Jason our Engineer was also a native of the San Luis Valley and started working for the railroad over a year and a half ago. He pointed out that all of the crews were cross-trained and were often required to do the work of several positions during their daily duties. This differs from the larger Class 1 railroads where employees work only in the position that their job title denotes. This is sometimes a hard adjustment for those employees to who have come from the Class 1 railroads to make.

As I alluded to before, Jason our Engineer, also volunteers for the 35 member volunteer fire department in Alamosa just like Jason our Conductor. Even though these guys work for a smaller railroad, they are still entitled to all of the benefits that all railroad employees are eligible for, including retirement and other savings and health plans. Jason also really enjoys his job and was very thankful that he had an opportunity to join the railroad. Both Jason’s have the ability to go to a larger railroad if they wish, but they are both fairly sure that they will end up staying pretty close to home in the San Luis Valley.

We had several crossings that Jason had to watch closely and sound his horn to. I took the time that I had to not only talk with Jason, but to also put my camera to work.

The time had gone very quickly as we were already pulling into the station at Alamosa. Even though my trip lasted just a few short hours in the morning, I certainly got a lot accomplished. Wow, what a morning! From meeting and getting to know the crew of our train, the passengers, as well as some of the fascinating people of Monte Vista and the San Luis Valley, to the experience of riding in a diesel electric locomotive, I have had a phenomenal time and a great learning experience.

And the day is just half over….

Stay tuned for part 3.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Marathon Southwest Colorado Trip - Part 1

I am still trying to recuperate from a two day trip that was jam packed. But anyone who knows me, expects that I will get as much stuff in as I can with the time allotted, and more times than not I overrun the time that I have.

This excursion was no different. I had been planning on making this trip since last fall when I had been in the area on another project. Even though I had anticipated that this road trip would be primarily a photography trip, I was amazed at the number of incredible people and places that I encountered in a part of the state that I had either spent little or no time in.

I had to break my blog entry into 3 parts due to the shear amount of information that I amassed during these two short days. I know that I will definitely be returning to this incredible part of the state in the future to discover many more things that I just did not have time to see.

I hope that you enjoy reading about and seeing photos from my two day marathon tour of Southwestern Colorado.

Part 1

After getting just a few hours sleep, my alarm went off at 3 AM on Thursday morning. I was up and ready to hit the road.

There are a few advantages to leaving in the middle of the night, one of them being no traffic. What a nice change of pace.

I have always liked trains, but over the last year or so, I have been becoming more and more a rail fan. With the help of some of my Flickr contacts and other more serious rail fans, my interest and knowledge continues to expand and I have been able to capture these special moments and experiences in my images.

My train out of Alamosa was scheduled to depart at 9:00 AM, and I needed to check in by 8:30. My truck pulled into town at 8 with 30 minutes to spare. I had already purchased tickets from the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad several days earlier for the two trips that I wanted to experience. The Rio Grande Scenic Railroad is a standard gauge railroad that combines both passenger and freight trains along their track which extends from Monte Vista on the west to Walsenburg on the east, and from Alamosa to Antonito to the South. The Alamosa to Antonito train ties in with the Cumbres & Toltec Narrow Gauge Railroad which runs from Antonito to Chama, New Mexico.

My plan for Thursday was to take the San Luis Express round trip from Alamosa to La Veta via La Veta Pass. This trip takes the better part of a day and approximately 120 miles, so I limited my itinerary to just this trip for the day.

Upon stepping up to the ticketing window, I was immediately greeted by the friendly folks behind the counter. The ladies and gentlemen were very friendly and I would soon find out that the entire railroad staff that I encountered, from the ticketing folks, Customer Service Reps, Conductors, Engineers and others were all very approachable and friendly.

One of the main reasons that I wanted to take this train is that it is powered by No. 18, an American Locomotive 2-8-0 Consolidation Steam locomotive. Upon entering the platform area, I immediately noticed the sound and smell indicative of a coal fired steam locomotive. The locomotive was standing ready at the platform and there were approximately 60 passengers patiently waiting to board.

It was going to be a beautiful day to take the train as the sun was shining and clouds were just scattered in the beautiful blue sky.

I purchased a ticket for the dome observation car, which among others were purchased from the Alaska Railroad. Our train today, was powered by No. 18, and included the dome observation car, a 1950’s era coach car, the 1918 Calumet Club Car (which was rebuilt in 1948), and an open air car.

The majority of travelers got tickets for the nice air conditioned observation dome car. One of the families that I was sitting next to was a grandfather and grandmother from Golden, Colorado that were on a weekend outing with 3 of their grandkids. The grandfather volunteers at the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden, and they try to do several trips with the grandkids each summer.

There were individuals and families from all over the country and from various backgrounds. Of those people, there were several other photographers and rail fans. I also believe that there were several other local regular travelers also aboard.

Once everyone was aboard and settled the train slowly started to chug its way away from the platform.

The first 20 miles or so was spent traveling east along the valley floor of the San Luis Valley towards Fort Garland at about 30 MPH. The trains awesome steam whistle pierced the air as it churned toward railroad crossings along Highway 160. Passengers were treated to a magnificent view of the Sangre De Cristo Mountain Range and Mount Blanca from the left side of the train. The sun was highlighting the tops of the mountains. This time also gave passengers and the train staff, including Carlos (Engineer) and the PCA’s (Passenger Car Assistant) a chance to get acquainted and for the passengers to be served drinks and snacks.

The train made a brief stop in Fort Garland to pick up a couple of additional passengers, and was quickly underway again.

Within just minutes the scenery began to change as the train began its ascent up La Veta Pass. Several other photographers as well as myself quickly left the comfort of the dome observation car and headed to the back of the train to the open air car with cameras in hand.

No. 18 had 3 engineers in the cab with one of them being checked out on the steamer. This allowed Carlos, another engineer to be back with the passengers to log the trip and complete other required paperwork. Carlos is also a fellow photographer, spent quite a bit of time visiting with the passengers and also giving us photographers tips on photo ops along the route.

There were several turns along the route which gave us some nice photo ops along the way as the train snaked its way up the pass. The combination of aspen and several pine and spruce varieties of trees as well as the Sangre De Cristo Mountain Range provided a beautiful backdrop to our vintage steam locomotive. The trains vestibules also provided areas for people to enjoy the fresh mountain air, take in the sights and grab a few shots if they so desired.

We soon arrived at Fir Station, a midpoint stop at the top of La Veta Pass. At the top we met the westbound diesel electric locomotive passenger train also traveling between La Veta and Alamosa. They had to wait until our train arrived since the route is single track. The engineer from the westbound train alerted our train crew of 2 brown bears that were sighted between tunnel 1 and tunnel 2 on the eastern side of the pass. We were stopped just long enough to transfer a few passengers who did not want to make the full day trip. Fir Station provides a remarkable view of the track to the west of the station and of the surrounding terrain. It also has an outdoor amphitheater and wind turbine that supports outdoor concerts and other events.

Our steamer slowly began the eastern descent down the pass towards 2 tunnels on the route and the town of La Veta.

I was able to hear and smell the brakes on the train as the engineer held the trains speed to around 15 miles per hour as it slowly made the descent towards the first of the two tunnels. As the train approached tunnel 1, Carlos and two of the other PCA’s (Passenger Car Assistant) made sure to come back to the open car to watch for the bears along with the rest of us. Everyone in the open air car were huddled on the right side of the car anxiously looking and waiting for the possibility of being able to see the bears that had been reported by the other trains crew. We soon entered and passed through the first tunnel which I guess was approximately 200 feet in length.

Everyone’s attention was focused on spotting the reported bears. We were soon treated to 2 brown bears shading themselves in the brush and shrubs just 20 yards from the track. With my camera at the ready I quickly snapped several shots of the one bear that was plainly visible sitting in the shade almost enjoying watching the train and those of us hurriedly snapping his picture. The other smaller bear was almost completely obscured by the surrounding vegetation. The bears quickly faded into the distance as the train continued on its journey.

After the sighting, people and other photographers were asking me if I had got any shots. I quickly ran through the 6 or 7 shots that I had taken and seen that I had got some fairly good shots in the short period. Other passengers asked if they could take a look, because either they did not see the bears or their shots did not come out well. I was kind of surprised at first that a few of the passengers had never seen a bear outside a zoo environment. I should have not of been. I sometimes take all my experiences that I have had over the years for granted. There are a lot of folks that do not get out into the wild to be able to experience nature and what Colorado has to offer.

Soon, the second tunnel approached and passed. This tunnel was much longer than the first one, probably 500’ in length. Carlos continued to point out sights along the way down the mountain. There were old rail beds from days gone by from ore cars that were taken down the mountain for processing. As we approached the Cuchara Valley, the scenery once again began to change. This time, passengers got to observe the fertile fields of crops, hay, and pasture for cattle and horses. Passengers who were observant also got treated to several doe deer that were grazing in the pastures along the track.

After about 2 ½ hours we pulled into the historic town of La Veta. The skies had started to cloud up and were looking like rain could start at any time. I have on multiple occasions been on Highway 160 but always neglected to make to the turn to La Veta and went on over La Veta pass via the highway.

The old train terminal in La Veta is now home to the town government . I love these old stations as they are a symbol of American railroading of years past. I like to see these old terminals being restored and used for other functions and not be torn down or just sit empty and allowed to fall into disrepair.

We had two hours to explore the town and grab something for lunch from one of the many eateries along the historic streets. The crew made a few suggestions on places to go and check out. I decided on the Ryus Ave Bakery just across from the park that was adjacent to the station. The charming little bakery had 2 tables with umbrellas on the east side of the building and 2 small tables with chairs on either side of the front door entrance facing Ryus Ave. All of the tables were already occupied with patrons. The bakery had a line of about 12 people waiting to order and the 6 tables inside were mostly filled with not much room to spare in the small bakery. Most of the people were locals enjoying each other’s company and a good meal. The small kitchen in the back was hustling with activity from the employees putting together customer’s orders. From the end of the line I looked over the menu which consisted of sandwiches on homemade breads, salads, bakery specials and of course all of the good stuff like pies, pastries and other desserts.

When it was my time to order I decided on half of a sandwich which came with homemade coleslaw, pickle and chips. I ended up passing on the other really good stuff. By the time I ordered one of the tables out front opened up, so I decided to take in the sights and enjoy my lunch from there. Almost as soon as I sat down, I started feeling a few raindrops, and I thought that I might have to take refuge inside. But they mostly held off until I finished my lunch.

Across the street on the north side and next to the park was an art and pottery gallery. One of the artisans had some freshly sculpted pottery in the bed of a pick-up out in front of the store. I was in the process of admiring the craftsmanship and taking a couple of shots when the skies opened up and started to pour rain. I quickly took refuge under a canopy in the park. The shower was short-lived and lasted only about 5 minutes.

I continued to explore the downtown area and take in the sights. The town has really benefited from the train and passenger traffic as well as from other seasonal visitors to the area. I took the time to visit with some of the local residents as well as with some of my fellow train passengers talking shop about photography and trains.

The two hours passed quickly, and while the other passengers and I were exploring town, the crew had taken the engine to the yard for water, grease and oil and turned the engine around and re-connected with all of the cars.

The trip back to Alamosa started as planned and as the train made the steep climb back up La Veta Pass, No. 18 was spewing black smoke and steam as it labored up the mountain. As the train made it to the two tunnels, all of the passengers got to experience the darkness, smoke, steam and heat from the steamer as it passed through the tunnels. Those folks, including myself that were out in the open car got a really good dose of the historic nature of the classic engine. We all tasted the after effects for several minutes after experience. Very cool!!

Again we had to stop at Fir Station at the top to meet the diesel train on its return trip to La Veta. This time all of the passengers got to disembark the train for about 40 minutes while we waited for the other train to arrive. The afternoon was overcast and cool, and I was able to meet and speak with several other passengers during our wait. I am amazed at the number of rail fans that I have encountered on this trip. It was a real joy to visit with and get to know some of the other people that have gathered to take this wonderful trip.

Once the other train arrived, there were again some passenger exchanges, and we were on our way. The trip home was very relaxing and quiet. Most everyone took the time to return to their seats to either take a siesta or just visit with family and newly formed friends.

As the train once again dropped down into the San Luis Valley, the whistle once again began to blow, signaling to everyone that the trip would soon be ending. The train pulled into Alamosa at 6:30 PM and everyone said their goodbye’s and disembarked for the evening.

It was a long day for me, but I would not have missed it. The experience of the train, the railroad employees, and the people who boarded her was unforgettable, and I would do it all over again. I even made a few contacts to boot.

I headed to the hotel to get checked in, had dinner and called it a night. Friday would require another early start and would go well into the night.

Stay tuned for part 2…

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Busy Saturday

It was Friday night and I knew the weather was going to be a challenge Saturday.

As my alarm sounded Saturday morning, I slowly arose and went to a window to find that my concerns were coming true. The skies were gray and overcast, and rain was threatening. The day begins...

My friend Rick and I had a full schedule of places to go and things to do. Every time that I do not drive it feels like I have to move. I have my camera, laptop, tripod, power inverter, safety gear, jacket, etc.. etc... Good thing Rick also has a large vehicle.

Even though I had attended the Mile High Hook and Ladder event in Littleton before, finding a large number of Fire Departments in attendance to contribute to the parade down Littleton Blvd to downtown Littleton's Main Street, this year proved quite a disappointment. In addition to the dreary overcast and misting skies, the parade was lucky to have lasted 10 minutes, and that may be generous. In years past many departments proudly displayed their equipment to the people lined up along the parade route. I would assume that due to the tight municipal budgets in our staggering economy, many departments failed to attend this year.

As Rick's primary photographic focus today was on the apparatus that departments were showing off to the public, his rewards were few to almost non-existent. I usually try and focus my efforts elsewhere, but I do occasionally take shots of this nature.

The parade gave way to a Fire Muster event on the grounds of the Arapahoe Community College. Even though the crowds were decent, the parking lots that have been full in past years remained mostly empty of the fire equipment that we were there to shoot. The departments that were in attendance, attempted to create an atmosphere that would be of interest for the children and they also provided some exhibits and demonstrations.

My camera had been somewhat active during this event, but there were no shots that I would plan on using.
So on to the next event on the schedule...

We made the trek up Highway 285 to the Inter-Canyon Fire & Rescue's Station 1 in Jefferson County. They were providing the community with an Open House to display some of their equipment, familiarize citizens with their local fire department and answer any questions. It always helps attract folks when you are serving coffee and donuts.

All of the members of the volunteer department were very friendly and were more than willing to give you any information that you wanted. Some of the members of this department have full time jobs with Denver metro area fire departments. Inter Canyon provides coverage to local residents of 60 square miles of Jefferson County, including a stretch of Highway 285.

Rick was able to get all of the shots that he wanted to get, and I was able to get some different shots that I will be posting over the next few days.

Thanks to all of the members of the Inter-Canyon Fire & Rescue for welcoming us and their courtesy.

I want to also thank Christian of the Jeffco 6A Troop of the Colorado State Patrol. He had stopped by to introduce himself and meet with some of the firefighters. He was kind enough to let me shoot his vehicle for our Colorado State Patrol group on Flickr.

Although I would have preferred sunny weather with some blue sky, the lighting from overcast skies sometimes is preferable for photography. I was able to get a few shots that made this stop worthwhile.

Okay, so far we had ventured from my home in Wheat Ridge to Littleton in Arapahoe County, the foothills of Jefferson County, and now we were en-route to Boulder. I told you that we had a lot on the plate...

The skies were persistently overcast to this point and were now becoming more ominous with the afternoon heating and scattered thunderstorms building to the west.

As we approached our final planned stop of the day, the skies were buzzing with aircraft. Although most of the main events at the Boulder Municipal Airport were held in the morning, including a hot air balloon launch, skydiver demonstration, and a flyover by a MiG-17, we were still able to catch the aircraft exhibition area. This was all part of the 4th Annual Airport Day and Open House.

Although Rick had planned on being able to catch the Boulder Fire Department and the Boulder Emergency Squad displays that were scheduled to appear, he was somewhat disappointed when they were not there.

Oh well, there were plenty of other things to our liking to catch some shots of. I know that I was not disappointed.

Once we entered the airport, my eyes were immediately drawn to some of my favorite aircraft. Helicopters!!

The Army Blackhawk Helicopter stood proudly on the tarmac on the west end of the airport.

Even though it was getting to the end of the open house, there was still quite a few people milling around exploring the aircraft, but the majority were in and around the dark military helicopter.

Unfortunately, I am not a pilot, but I have flown in helicopters many times, and I do so at every opportunity. I love it.

A Grumman TBM 3 Avenger was also a crowd pleaser. This large 1942 airplane is 1 of only 16 still flying today. It was designed to carry either torpedoes or bombs and carried a crew of three. For air to air combat, the plane had three (.50 cal) machine guns, one in the turret and one on either wing.

And if you are interested in owning your own single engine turboprop airplane, the Swiss made Pilatus PC-12 NG goes for a cool 4 million dollars.

I seriously thought about putting in an order, but I decided to wait until I win the lottery...

But if you are interested in more of a classic passenger aircraft, you could have perused a 1943 Beechcraft SNB-5/ UC 45 J. This airplane is privately owned, however you could purchase a ride for $75.
There were also a few other airplanes that we did not have time to look at.
All in all, it was a good day. The weather could have cooperated a little more, but you have to go with what Mother Nature deals you.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Pawnee National Grasslands

Experiencing the Grasslands for the first time, although vast and beautiful in its own way, lacked the life and color that I knew could be present in this place......

That was in October of last year. I promised myself that I would return in the spring.

Well, here we are. Once dominated by large populations of deer, antelope, elk and buffalo, and scarcely populated with Indians and fur trappers, these lands have been through quite a transformation over the years. With the railroads push west, homesteaders trying to make a home to ranch and farm, as well as the droughts that have periodically hit, the area has forever been changed, impacted my man.

With my last visit almost being an accident, I was not completely prepared for the trip. Being both short on daylight and on fuel my time was cut short. I knew that the next time I visited this place that I would be prepared with more information as well as a full gas tank.

It was Friday May 29th when I contacted the National Forest Service/ Pawnee National Grassland office in Greeley. The nice woman who answered the phone, Melissa, was full of information and was kind enough to offer to leave me information on the Grasslands for me to pick-up on Saturday even though their office was closed. Thank you Melissa!

After getting an early start and picking up my information in Greeley, the expedition was on.

The drive east on Highway 14 out of Ault was at first was nothing remarkable, but then primrose with their white blooms began to highlight the green grasses and fields along the way. I knew that I had arrived. Colorado Hwy 14 provides access to most all areas of the National Grasslands. Just keep in mind that the Grasslands are intermixed with areas of private property. Make sure to get a map of the area.

Even though I had driven by the Crow Valley Campground on my last trip, I knew that I wanted to stop this time from reading some the information that I had received from the Greeley office. The campground was supposed to be a great area for bird watchers. As I pulled into the parking area, I heard bird song from trees lining the road and my eyes were drawn to a hawk flying overhead.

Although I am not a bird watcher, and I am lucky to be able to identify just a few well know species, my interest was spurred by a group of several people near the trees with binoculars. I always carry a pair of binoculars in my truck, so I grabbed them and my camera and went to see what was attracting their interest. Upon reaching the group, with a Colorado State Park Ranger in attendance, they pointed out several Robins and a Rose-breasted Grosbeak jumping from limb to limb and tree to tree feasting on small nodules on the underside of the leaves. My binoculars provided a nice view, unfortunately however my camera was not outfitted for the task of grabbing close-ups. The Grasslands are home to home to 301 bird species.

I was able to break out the camera and photograph a nice yellow wildflower, and Prickly Pear Cactus. The morning light provided a wonderful glow to both of my shots.

The campground was also home to an outdoor farm implement museum named after Lee and Dorothy Rhoads. This also provided several photo opportunities of some the equipment that was once used on their farm. Although I was not completely happy with all of my shots, there were a few that I decided to keep and use.

With some of my Flickr friends using HDR on a regular basis, I decided that it would be a great opportunity to break out the tripod and take advantage of the scenery and try some more of them myself.

The grasslands, buttes and deep blue skies with building afternoon scattered thunderstorms proved to be an excellent time to use that technique, as well as just single shot photography. They both provided excellent landscape shots.

On my last visit, I had noticed all of the wind turbines up on a butte in the distance, (as seen above) and I made a note that I was going to get a closer look the next time I was there. At the time I did not realize the size and the scope of the Cedar Creek Wind Farm. With having more time and obviously more beautiful photography conditions, I was able to get an up close look at the many wind turbines that are part of this expansive wind farm. What an incredible sight!! With the fertile land actively being farmed and also serving as pasture land, it made for quite a picturesque view. It is definitely worth the visit; however stay on the county roads, all of the wind farm lies on private property.

Going farther east you will discover the Pawnee Buttes area of the Grasslands. Here you will find access roads and some trails that are open for hiking and horseback. The scenery here takes on a slightly more desert look with the sedimentary butte rock formations, cactus, lizards, and snakes in plentiful supply. Ahhh, another opportunity for some HDR shots!

The trip to the Pawnee National Grasslands has been rewarding. Spring provides lots of color and beautiful skies, and although at first glance animal life appears to be sparse, the Grasslands are full of life. Take a look. I know that I will return.